The CBC has announced that next year’s Canada Reads authors will be sent on a mall tour, part of a strategy to reach a younger demographic. Sporting bikinis and Lucite heels (regardless of gender), the writers will walk a food court catwalk and then stand next to voting boxes where mall patrons can pick their favourites. Shoppers not wanting to take a break between Dynamite and H&M, can text in their preferences. The writer with the most number of votes and facebook friends wins.
In her excoriating article in The Globe and Mail, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer discussed much of what made this year’s Canada Reads so abysmal. The competition, however, is only a symptom of the fact that cultural criticism is no longer considered sexy enough in its own right. Instead it needs to be tarted up with reality-TV-style competitions and propped up by social media campaigns. Beyond the tackiness, it’s dangerous. By conflating the ideas of criticism and celebrity, we’re recasting what it means to be a writer.
Back in 2010, Russell Smith exhorted authors to unplug and get writing. He claimed that books succeed on their own merits. Keep your head down, keep writing and let the accolades take care of themselves. We’re two years on and there’s a spot on the Giller long-list for the title that got the most online votes.
Do you have a book coming out? Do you want to? The first piece of advice you’ll be given is to develop a web presence. With reviews and criticism disappearing in traditional venues, publishers need their authors to flog books by whatever means available. Social media is cheap, requires no supervision and when someone does it well, it can sell books. But those successes are as few and far between as Mary Kay ladies driving pink Cadillacs.
Social media was not designed for considered commentary. It succeeds by disseminating the business of ordinary lives in ways previously reserved for celebrities. Our names show up in “newsfeeds”; we get tagged in photos; our friends are tallied. We toss out the crumbs of our daily lives, convinced there is a waiting crowd ready to receive them as pearls.
It’s also a fast medium—Twitter, Facebook and blogs are built for snappy, superficial updates. There’s no time for the contemplation that went into a Richler column, and certainly none of the pay.
What happens to the craft when writers need to be more concerned with selling themselves than with honing their art? Few writers can survive without day jobs; many also have families. There are only so many hours in a day and the hours spent feeding blogs, Twitter and Facebook often come at the expense of writing, reading, and observing.
Before In the Field came out, I took the advice; got a webpage up, started a blog. I’ve written one post. Partly it’s because any free time goes to writing, but partly it’s because I’m more comfortable nosing into other people’s business than displaying my own. It’s why I write fiction. After logging more than a quarter million hours with myself, I’m quite happy to step into someone else’s shoes.
There’s also the issue of experience. At 32, with only one book out, I’m reminded of my grandmother’s reaction to the couple that sold the rights to a livestream of their mutual deflowering. “What’s exciting about two virgins having sex?”
I worry that with increased reliance on social media, and more call for sensation to sell books, we’re cutting out a key writing demographic—introverts. If you’re not a great publicist, if you don’t like the spotlight, does that mean you don’t get to be a writer?
So where does that leave us? In fact, I take my answer from social media’s literary success. Sites like Canadian Bookshelf (or the now defunct Book Ninja), online writing hubs like Joyland, the multitude of author-driven review sites, Sarah Selecky’s Twitter feed writing prompts, or placesforwriters’ aggregation of calls for submission are all examples of ways technology can serve the arts community. I wish I’d spent less time over the past six months worrying about establishing an online reputation and more time contributing to my in-the-flesh community.
We need to accept that, infuriating as it is, we’re never going to get those spaces for criticism back in traditional media. And if we’re going to infect non-readers with a love of literature, it’s not going to be from masquerading as pseudo-celebrities or voting other writers off the island. It’s going to be from being community-builders. From hosting and attending live readings. From smart, hip initiatives like the Poetry Vending machines and Project Bookmark. It’s going to be from talking to people (yes, even the ones who liked Twilight) about books. Every day.